Review

Glory in a Camel's Eye
by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 1988–90;
PC staff: Poland, Uzbekistan 1992–93)
Houghton Mifflin Co.
2003
245 pages
$25.00

Reviewed by Vic Cox (Brazil 1964–66)

WE ALL HAVE DREAMS, but few of us pursue them with the passionate persistence of Jeffrey Tayler, travel book author and Moscow-based correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. He needs that quality because going on long, arduous and often dangerous journeys apparently is central to Tayler’s dreams.
     In his first travel saga book, Siberian Dawn, Tayler hitchhiked and rode the rails more than 8,000 miles from Magadan, Siberia, to Warsaw. For his next book, Facing the Congo, he and a guide paddled a dugout canoe 1,000 miles down the Congo River, fending off corrupt government functionaries and traversing malaria-infested regions.
     For the recently published Camel’s Eye he and his indigenous guides trekked and rode camels several hundred miles through southern Morocco’s Draa River Valley and over Saharan sands to the Atlantic Ocean. When his Moroccan agent advised him that the journey was risky but it could be done, Tayler wrote, “Suddenly, all my time in Morocco and trips to the Draa seemed like a prelude to the chance to realize a dream I had nurtured for fifteen years.”
      Unfortunately, this dream seldom comes into focus for the reader. His unconventional route takes us through a welter of towns, villages, and wide-spots-in-the-dunes, few of them distinctive in this account. (A map of the route traveled would have helped.) His tone is mostly dispassionate, recording events and occasionally sharing a moment of enthusiasm for his guides or the people he meets in the crumbling casbahs or dust-encrusted tents along the journey.
     Even the desert, with its variety of terrain and winds, recedes into background, never fully becoming a character in the story. It’s as if the increasing hardships on Tayler, his two Ruhhal guides, and three camels narrow the narrator’s focus to conflicts among the men and the struggles to survive to the next oasis or well. And after four years of drought, some of those Saharan wells are dry.
     The drought is blamed for driving the independent, clannish Ruhhal people from their traditional herding life into the country’s drab towns and flyblown villages. Some cling to the old ways and still tend their goats and camels on the diminishing vegetation, but Tayler reports little luck in finding the bold and valorous desert people he imagined.
     Inspired to master Arabic in college by reading Philip K. Hitti’s History of the Arabs (1943) and Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1954), Tayler claims to have become “enamored of the Arab world.” Yet his first venture in 1987 into the region ended badly in Meknes, Morocco, when he “ate a bad kebab and it nearly killed me.”
     Despite misgivings, he pragmatically returned to Morocco a year later as a Peace Corps Volunteer posted to Marrakesh. “My money had run out and I had no other prospects for employment,” he wrote, and he wanted to resume exploring the Arab world. It was during his two-year tour that Tayler first heard of the stark beauty of the upper Draa River Valley. He also learned about the seductive attractiveness of Moroccan women.
     In this book, Tayler seems to be in search of another shimmering seduction: Thesiger described an inner peace born out of desert solitude and the “comradeship in a hostile world” from noble-spirited nomads. The Ruhhal Tayler travels with and meets on his trek are of much more common metal, concerned with caring for their camels, eating regularly, and stretching out their employment by adding time to the trek.
      They also are curious, in varying degrees, about this Christian (they assume) who speaks fluent Moroccan Arabic and is walking across some of the most challenging territory in the country. A few of these devout Muslims even seek to convert him, which he finds initially amusing, then annoying.
     The protagonist in a story like this, which offers none of the standard travel lore or information, always has stage center, but Tayler reveals only snapshots of his emotions, fragments of his values. We get little self-reflection so it is difficult to see how he is “enamored” by the land or its people. At times, he does not seem to like them very much, but that is most evident when he feels ill.
     Wherever he travels in this harsh land, for example, he finds hospitality extended to the stranger, be it a cup of mint tea or a full meal. While he notes the customary kindnesses, as he does the ritual greetings and praise of God, he seems more likely to comment on the people’s lack of hygiene.
     Tayler is gracious enough to ask forgiveness from one of the Ruddal guides with whom he has been in conflict, but he cannot resist telling us that he tipped both guides with “a wad of bills.”
      In the end, Tayler’s narrative feels shaped more by disappointment than the elation to be expected from completing a grueling journey. If his dream was to discover for himself Thesiger’s inner peace and the friendship of noble nomads, time and change may have thwarted him this time. But he will try again.

Vic Cox is a writer/editor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of the young adult nonfiction reference books Guns, Violence, and Teens and The Challenge of Immigration.